A journey down the UK's '3D Tongue' into its mini industrial revolution

Toss me a screwdriver... Yes I'll wait 3-5 days

One of the few "horizon" technologies that is really making a difference right now is 3D printing.

While other "big hope" concepts such as genetic engineering, nanotech and quantum physics have yet to make much of an impact, 3D has been making immediate inroads into traditional, sometimes ancient manufacturing techniques.

Most products are made from a "subtractive" process such as carving a marble statue. "Casting" is another method and is used to make chocolate bunnies, which is as old as the Greeks.

"Additive" manufacturing, or what is popularly known as 3D printing, is beginning to create an industrial revolution. First, 3D printing is ideal for prototyping and modelling. The speed and ability to produce highly detailed products means prototypes can be produced in a fraction of the time.

The UK is among the international leaders in the game, according to Phill Dickens, professor of manufacturing technology at Nottingham University and a leading light in additive manufacturing. His spinout firm Added Scientific, which offers advice to industry on the potential of 3D printing, will exhibit at the UK's main conference on additive manufacturing, opening on July 12 and also in Nottingham.

Not unlike the rapid adoption of new ideas by the big financial institutions in London, the UK has grasped the potential of 3D printing quicker than many other countries, said Prof Dickens.

"The UK took to it very quickly – in manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, engineering, medical devices, consumer goods, and even jewellery. In the past four years, high-value manufacturing has utilised 3D printing, including the production of pharmaceutical pills."

In the UK, 3D printing activity has concentrated into a curiously shaped "3D Tongue," stretching north to south from Nottingham to Loughborough down to Cambridge and westwards into hubs around Bristol and Devon.

In my organisation's database of the UK's small and mid-sized firms, there exist no fewer than 132 UK businesses active in 3D printing, a host of often very small prototyping companies, and the leading dentistry firm Attenborough Dental and medical device biz Brightwake Ltd, both in Nottingham.

One, CEL-UK in Bristol, creates desktop printers designed for public use. In Devon is perhaps the UK's best-known small 3D print firm, Ion Core. Back in 2014, it won up to £7m from hedge fund managers Jonathan Bailey to finance production of its Zinter printers. On its website is a TV commercial showing a little boy, confounded by early attempts at creating a robot figure from clay, who turns to a Zinter to produce a monster Dalek figure.

Need a wrench on the ISS? No prob

So, if you are in a remote location, such as the International Space Station, and need a particular type of wrench – no problem. An onboard 3D printer does the trick. Most US Navy aircraft carriers now carry a 3D printer. Stuck in the mountains of Nepal after an earthquake and need an individual connector to unite two different types of water hose? A 3D printer in the back of a Land Rover can grow that connector in less than an hour.

Need a unique prosthetic for a rapidly growing child? Just input the measurements into a printer and out comes that new, perfectly fitting part – year after year.

Jewellery is one area where 3D printing has found an early niche. This year, the Crown Jeweller Mappin & Webb bought a 3D printer for its London workshop that is capable of creating the exceptional level of detailing required for individually designed pieces. Also, in 2016, Nimesh Thakrar co-founded Banneya London, a startup that uses 3D printing for bespoke fine jewellery. Following stints as an engineer for Honda's Formula 1 team, Nimesh went on to meet his co-founder Misa Zahar during their MBA studies at London Business School.

Fashion, too, has also jumped at the opportunity. Off-the-printer fashion could soon be a reality thanks to the "modeclix" project from the University of Hertfordshire, which uses 3D printing technology to develop products that are uniquely customisable and wearable.

Featuring eight dresses and two headpieces, the modeclix collection is the first to make 3D concepts wearable and can be customised to any size and shape, either before printing or after, by adjusting the intricate links to fit by hand.

Starting in London in April 2013, the Unmade Studio turned industrial knitting machines into 3D printers to produce knitwear on demand. It soon attracted £2m in funding. It holds no stock and manufactures only to order, said co-founder Ben Alun-Jones.

Perhaps the biggest UK contribution has come from the invention of a novel technique named High Speed Sintering (HSS) technology by Professor Neil Hopkinson. He developed it on the back of his 19 years of research at various universities. HSS uses inkjet printheads and infrared heaters to manufacture products layer-by-layer from polymer powder materials at much higher speeds than other additive manufacturing processes.

In January 2016, Xaar, a Cambridge-based leader in industrial inkjets, recruited Prof Hopkinson as its director of 3D printing, a key appointment for the future. In the past few years, some observers have sneered that 3D printing was still "in the toy stage," and was able to produce only very limited quantities of product. Not for much longer.

Any future Xaar product will compete head-on with a new super 3D printer entering the market – the Multi Jet Fusion – being developed and to be launched this year by Hewlett Packard.

"HP is betting the corporation on its future," Dickens said. "It will be capable of producing product runs of 100,000 and upwards, and offers break-even prices compared with injection moulding. It is the big leap from printing and prototyping into mainstream manufacturing – a market that could be 50 times larger."

Other big companies have not been slow to master the new techniques. Rolls-Royce and Airbus have both used them to make some small components faster, but it is the Gloucestershire-based measurement giant Renishaw plc which is probably the current leader in 3D printing in metal materials.

Renishaw recently produced a 3D-printed, one-piece wishbone from titanium powder for a super-bike that was 40 per cent lighter than the 12-component, laboriously welded part it replaced. Its system will be one of the foremost UK highlights at the Farnborough Air Show that started this week.

Perhaps the oddest development is the recent combination of 3D printing and advanced chemistry pioneered by Prof Lee Cronin at Glasgow University. With industrial advice from BAE Systems, he is developing the "chemputer" which, in theory, will grow small-scale unmanned aircraft, or drones, in a laboratory.

While a 3D printer physically makes the parts for a machine, the chemputer speeds up the chemical reactions from the molecular level. Such a breakthrough could mean it would take weeks rather than months or years to build an aircraft from scratch, claims BAE Systems.

And in case ordinary mortals think 3D printing remains still a distant prospect beyond their reach – libraries in the US and UK, including Cardiff, Stafford, Exeter and Dundee, now have their own 3D printers.

The significance of this is clear: it makes the phenomenon perhaps the first scientific advance, unlike so many others, to be rapidly democratised at an early stage of its development. ®

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